The 5 (+ 1) best business books of 2016

WHEN I was asked to select the best business books of 2016, I said “yes!” far too fast. I have set a regimen that I have honoured for close on two decades, to read 49 books each year. It turned out to be very hard to choose only five. What I set as a criterion was that the book must add value in a way or in an area that none had before - to the best of my knowledge.

The books I have chosen cover work habits, how to ensure your company grows, the industries that will dominate the future, what is required now that we live so much longer, what first-time managers need to know, and how to excel at forecasting.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport

We live with constant distraction from our always available cellphones, constantly bombarding emails, streaming music, TV, SMS, WhatsApp, Pintrest, and this list goes on. This is before we factor in the usual distractions of colleagues at work, and family and friends at home. The debilitating effects of constant distraction cannot be overestimated. It decimates our productivity and reduces the quality of our output. What you achieve is a mere fraction of what you could achieve in one day, or one work-life.

Worst of all, it has become the new normal. Associate professor Cal Newport’s book is a superb description of both the problem and its solutions. The title, ‘Deep work’, refers to the ability to concentrate deeply without distraction.

The Founder's Mentality: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth, by Chris Zook and James Allen

Only about one in nine large and established companies have sustained a minimal level of profitable growth over the last decade. The popular explanation for this lacklustre performance is the tough business or industry climate. While the context in which every business operates plays a significant role, what is commonly overlooked is what is happening inside the company.

This book is about the functional strategy: how companies must function, irrespective of the current state of the context. Both young and mature companies can avoid a slowdown in profit and growth if they continue to function with the robust mindset of  the company’s founder. This easily understood, but harder - not impossible - to achieve insight is the result of clever research by Bain and Company, the international tier-one consulting firm.

The Industries of the Future: How the Next 10 years of Innovation will Transform our Lives at Work and Home, by Alec Ross

The last wave of innovation and globalisation saw a billion people rise from poverty into the middle class in the developing countries, with their cheap labour and entry into the global economy. But we also saw losers whose labour was just not cheap enough to compete.

The next wave of innovation will hit all 196 countries on the planet. People will be able to wear robot suits that will enable paraplegics to walk. They will ingest designer drugs which will melt away certain forms of cancer. Computer code will be the new international currency, and the new weapon capable of destroying physical infrastructure on the other side of the world.

The industries that will drive the next 20 years of change will create losers out of people who were winners. This wave of innovation and globalisation will affect countries, societies, and ourselves. Forewarned is forearmed.

The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity, by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott

If you are in your 20s today, based on demographic trends you have a 50% chance of living more than 100 years. If you are in your 40s, you have the same chance of living to 95, and if you are in your 60s, of living to 90. Globalisation and technology changed how we live and work; longevity will do the same.

Hobbes talked of life in the 17th century as “nasty, brutish and short” – yours could be worse if not correctly handled: nasty, brutish and long. You will need to give serious thought to the tangible problems of longevity. These include financing forty years of retirement from only forty years of employment! Add to this rising medical costs which will rise still further as you age. The intangibles are your relationships that will be desperately necessary, and your ability to keep working for decades longer than your parents.

If you don’t attend to the tangibles and intangibles, the gift of a good, long life will be an option reserved only for the privileged few.

The New Manager: How to become a leader in 52 simple steps, by Steven Jacobs

My criterion for being on my best 5 + 1 list was that the book must add value in a way or in an area that none had before. This book made it for the way it presents insights and information.

“I wasn’t given any advice when I got my first position, I didn’t have a clue what I should do!” Thus began the conversation between two colleagues when they saw me reading this book and I described its approach. One of the women had retired as a mainboard director of a top 100, listed company; and the other had worked in and on multinationals, internationally. Both saw the enormous value in Jacob’s no-frills, down-on-the-floor, real guidance for first-time managers.

The book is a collection of 52 pieces of advice and insights, each a three-page chapter with ‘Reflection Questions’ at the end. The topics range from how to gain credibility and bond with your team, to how to lead in the storm. It covers how to develop your people, manage their performance, and evaluate your own performance.

Jacobs has produced a valuable book for use at the beginning of your career, or to share with those starting theirs.

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip E Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Author Professor Philip Tetlock’s book came out in September 2015 but I only read it in 2016, so factually it is not part of the best 5 books of 2016 and that is why it is my +1.

Tetlock has conducted the most comprehensive, scientific, assessment of expert judgement to date.

His twenty-year study showed that accuracy declines the further out experts tried to forecast, becoming no more accurate than a chimpanzee throwing a dart.

We are all forecasters. When we consider a career change, starting a business, marrying, buying a home or an investment, or retiring, it is always based, even if tacitly, on how we expect the future to unfold.

This book is based on Tetlock’s work with over 2 000 amateur forecasters in a geo-political and geo-economic forecasting tournament that he launched. This led him to assert that it is possible to see into the future, in some situations to some extent, and that any intelligent, open-minded and hardworking person can cultivate the requisite skills.

One need only consider how many people rely on us to provide them with leadership, at home and at work, to see the need to improve our forecasting.

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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